The nutrition you take in after your workout can make all the difference. Here’s what you need to know about post-workout supplements.
To achieve true levels of health and fitness you need a complete approach.
Unfortunately, you can’t rely on the odd workout here and there or the occasional healthy meal to get you in great shape. You need a complete lifestyle overhaul that’s underpinned by positive habits and good all-round decisions.
In the quest for a leaner, stronger and healthier physique, you are the captain on your own journey. You either sail fast and true…. or get lost along the way.
Part of that journey is choosing the right supplements to support your goals. The best nutrients act like slingshots, firing you into new physique territory.
And that’s what we’re here to cover in this detailed guide.
Why Are Post-Workout Supplements Important?
Supplements are a simple and efficient way of recovering from a tough workout and speeding up positive adaptation to exercise.
Post-workout supplements are those you take either right after an exercise session, or not long after. They help you overcome real world obstacles such as a lack of time to prepare meals.
In theory you don’t need post-workout supplements. You could just eat food instead. But in the real world, do you really want to force down chicken, rice and broccoli straight after your workout?
For many people that’s a clear no.
A post-workout supplement is a great way of replenishing lost energy and kick-starting the adaptive process with little to no food bulk.
Post-workout supplements are easy, quick and maximize productivity.
But like any kind of performance-enhancing nutrients, it all comes down to individual choice and quality. Go for the best products and you’ll supercharge your results… but make the wrong choices and you’ll be out of pocket and out of motivation.
Here’s a breakdown of what the nutrition industry often claims are the best post-workout supplements…
#1. Whey Protein
It doesn’t matter whether you’re here to build muscle or shed body fat, whey protein supports your goals.
Is it a supplement or is it a food? Whey protein kind of sits between.
Made from the liquid part of milk after you make cheese, whey is a high quality source of protein, even though it’s essentially a by-product of cheese making.
Whey on its own tastes pretty bad, but you can get flavored supplements that have added sweeteners and flavoring to make them taste like (pretty much) any flavor you can imagine – from basic vanilla to cookies and cream and even mint chocolate.
Whey is a high-quality protein source as it’s classed as a ‘complete’ protein. It contains all of the essential amino acids needed by your body to:
- Regenerate and build new muscle cells
- Promotes health, lean body composition and overall physical performance
- Produce anabolic hormones such as insulin and growth hormone
- Stimulate the production of protein enzymes and immune cells
- Provides energy when carb intake is low
There are different types of whey protein. Each one has a different quality rating, but also price tag too.
- Isolate – Very high protein content (~90% or more) and minimal ‘filler ingredients’. But can be expensive.
- Concentrate – Contains around 70% protein but more lactose so can cause stomach upset.
- Hydrolyzed – Fast absorption rate due to smaller protein fragments after production… but pricey.
Key Point: Whey protein is made by separating the liquid part of milk when cheese is produced. It is a high quality product with a full range of amino acids.
Whey protein can help you build more muscle mass
Your body is constantly fighting a battle between building new muscle cells and getting rid of old ones.
- Protein synthesis – building new muscle cells
- Protein degradation – removing old muscle cells
Net protein synthesis is when the rate at which you build new cells outweighs the rate at which you remove them. The result in more muscle mass.
According to scientific research, there are two things that trigger a net increase in protein synthesis
- Lifting weights
- Protein intake
There are numerous studies showing whey protein increases net protein synthesis.
In one particular research review looking at the role of protein in post-workout muscle reconditioning, whey protein was shown to be most effective to increase post-exercise muscle protein synthesis rates.
It triggered the building of muscle cells after exercise, helping to generate muscle growth.
The study went on to suggest that in order to maximize muscle gains from exercise, approximately 20 g protein during and/or immediately after exercise is sufficient to maximize post-exercise muscle protein synthesis rates.
However, it’s worth noting that the study was funded by a company that makes protein shakes and therefore isn’t as reliable source of evidence as you might think.
Key Point: Whey protein has been shown to help build muscle mass in conjunction with strength training.
Does the ‘anabolic window’ of protein intake really exist though?
Back in the day, bodybuilders thought that you needed to chug a protein shake right after a workout – when muscle cells were screaming for energy to build back stronger.
More recent research has shown that this so called ‘anabolic window’ doesn’t exist.
Protein ‘timing’ just isn’t worth worrying about. You can’t enhance muscle building by using a whey protein supplement post-workout.
You don’t need to rush for your whey protein supplement straight after your last set. And missing a protein snack within an hour post-workout won’t ruin your gains either.
Key Point: Whether you rush to take your protein after your workout or space it out across a day doesn’t really matter. It’s total net protein that’s important for muscle growth and recovery.
So, do you really ‘need’ whey protein?
It’s a great idea to get more protein in your diet. It not only helps muscle remodeling, but also with satiety, health and body composition too.
However, it’s completely possible to get the protein you need from food alone, without relying on a supplement.
For example, one study found that muscle mass could be achieved without a whey supplement, when whole foods such as chicken, eggs and read meat were eaten instead.
So, don’t think you have to take a post-workout supplement. They just fill in the gaps.
Caffeine can help to speed up muscle recovery and even boost fat loss when used as a post-workout supplement.
As a natural stimulant, caffeine is one of the most effective sports supplements on the market. It’s used by elite athletes, bodybuilders and any serious lifter who wants to get the best performance-enhancing results safely and legally.
Caffeine is a popular pre-workout supplement found naturally in foods such as coffee, tea and cocoa.
Caffeine promotes wakefulness and energy
When you’re relaxed, a chemical called adenosine attaches to your brain receptors, decreasing nervous system activity. This leads to feelings of calm, sleepiness and relaxation.
Caffeine stops the coupling action of adenosine, therefore inhibiting relaxation. Instead, it leaves you feeling awake, supercharged and primed to work hard in the gym.
You usually find caffeine as a base ingredient in the best pre workouts. It’s used to:
- Increase energy
- Boost stamina and endurance
- Enhance mood and motivation
- Increase strength, power and focus
- Improve fat loss
Key Point: Caffeine is a popular pre-workout nutrient used to enhance sports performance. It has a huge bank of evidence supporting its benefits.
Post-workout caffeine helps speed up recovery
There’s some emerging evidence that taking caffeine post-workout can be as beneficial as taking it beforehand.
After a workout it’s always a good idea to refuel. During high-intensity exercise, its glycogen (carbohydrates) that provide most energy, therefore replenishing lost glycogen should take priority.
Research shows that combining carbohydrates and caffeine speed up glycogen re-synthesis.
For example, one study saw that compared to carbohydrates alone, caffeine helped to increase glycogen stores by 66% after exhaustive exercise.
Caffeine was somehow able to trigger the proteins responsible for shutting glycogen into muscle cells – which explained the great results seen in the group of athletes.
Key Point: Post-workout caffeine can help recovery by speeding up glycogen re-synthesis and energy storage.
#3. Creatine Monohydrate
A natural compound that increases your ability to sustain maximal output.
Creatine is an organic substance made up of three amino acids. Your body can make its own, but you can also obtain it from foods such as red meat, poultry and seafood.
95% of stored creatine is found in muscle, with the remaining found in your brain, liver and kidneys.
It’s used for metabolic functions and can be found in all living vertebrates. Creatine’s main role during activity is to provide your muscles with energy to contract and work.
Energy, ATP and the role of creatine
Creatine helps your body make more ATP at high-intensities.
The main role of creatine is to facilitate the recycling of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the energy currency your body uses to convert the calories in the foods you eat into usable energy inside cells.
ATP acts like a chaperone, ushering energy to where you need it. Without ATP you wouldn’t exist as your body just couldn’t carry out even basic functions.
It’s that important.
You store around 100 g of ATP in your body at any one time, mostly in your muscles and brain. As you use it during physical activity your need to find a way of making more… that’s where creatine comes in.
During high-intensity exercise, creatine donates part of its structure to form more ATP.
That means more ATP and more energy to work harder for longer.
Why is creatine an effective post-workout supplement?
The average sedentary person uses around 2 g of creatine per day just through metabolic processes.
But the more active you are, the more you burn through.
When you’re working hard in the gym you increase the amount of ATP you need significantly.
Think of your body as your mobile phone – only you’ve got every app open and you’re burning through your battery fast. Now imagine creatine as the charger. When you’re plugged in you can use all the apps you need, but you’re still able to juice up your mobile – it performs better and lasts longer.
Creatine boosts strength, power and athleticism:
As one of the most extensively-researched post-workout supplements, creatine has been found in numerous studies to improve maximal work.
For example, a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that 5 g per day supplementation of the compound led to:
- Increased 1-rep max
- More muscle mass
- Improvements in both lower and upper body strength
More muscle mass with creatine:
Creatine acts as a ‘cell volumizer’, meaning it draws water into your muscle cells. The result in higher levels of lean mass and a much fuller looking physique.
Additionally, creatine boosts net protein synthesis as well as having a pleiotropic effect – it promotes protein accretion and helps your body build new muscle cells.
Lastly, creatine decreases the build-up of myostatin in muscle cells. Myostatin is like a muscle building off-switch, limiting the mass you can accrue through strength training.
If myostatin is lower, more muscle mass can be achieved.
Key Point: Combine whey protein with your creatine and you’ve got a powerful, kick-ass muscle building supplement stack ready to go.
As the building blocks of protein, BCAAs are responsible for growth, recovery and lean tissue development.
We know from our discussion on protein that after training your body needs fuel to help it restore damaged tissue. This helps it grow back both bigger and stronger.
If you take a protein molecule and break it down, you get chains of peptides. And those peptides are made up of strings of individual chemicals called branched-chain amino acids.
BCAAs are called essential compounds because you can only get them from your diet – your body can’t manufacture them itself. There are 3 in total:
Why are amino acids important in the diet?
Pretty much every part of you is made up of proteins. From your muscles and connective tissue to your skin and hair.
During exercise, the rate at which BCAAs are used as energy increases significantly. If the workout is tough, you can end up having depleted levels within the muscle.
BCAA supplementation before and after exercise has beneficial effects for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis.
BCAAs are said to provide an athlete with the following benefits when taken as a post-workout supplement:
- Greater strength and power output
- Elevated muscle protein synthesis
- Decreased muscle damage
These benefits all come from research showing BCAAs directly stimulate muscle growth. After all, as building blocks of protein that makes sense.
Studies show that leucine is the most anabolic of the BCAAs and an important trigger for protein anabolism.
Key Point: BCAAs have been shown through various studies to offer muscle tissue with an ‘anabolic trigger’ that speeds up growth.
Are BCAAs really one of the ‘best’ post-workout supplements?
It’s easy to get excited when you hear things like ‘BCAAs increase muscle mass’ or ‘leucine is an anabolic chemical’.
But to really understand how valuable BCAAs as a post-workout supplement are you have to look hard at the science.
Many coaches, nutritionists and scientists actually think that BCAAs have little value if you’re eating a protein-rich diet already. That makes complete sense too, as protein is full of amino acids anyway.
And that whey provides additional nutrients (other amino acids, vitamins and minerals) that you don’t get from BCAAs.
The data do not seem to support a benefit to BCAA supplementation during periods of caloric restriction.
In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, world-renowned experts Brad dieter, Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon discussed how existing research into BCAA and muscle growth wasn’t ‘real world relevant’.
They suggested that the few studies showing BCAA post-workout supplementation only led to increased muscle protein synthesis because participants were asked to eat a very low protein diet – far less than any trained athlete would follow day-to-day.
There are also some studies that have conflicting results.
BCAA post-workout supplements can be expensive. We suggest you think logically about how much you need them. If you can obtain your protein from other sources such as real food, you just don’t need them.
Key Point: BCAAs can be of value if you’re on a low protein diet. Other than that, they have little value.
Summary – The Best Post-Workouts Enhance Results
A high-quality post-workout supplement helps you refuel, replenish and build a more robust, athletic physique.
The brutal truth is that you can get the nutrients you need to reach your post-workout goals from food alone. You don’t need to rely on a supplement after your training… but they do provide an easy, effortless alternative to natural nutrition.